Nfld. & Labrador

Sled Case: Would you bet your safety on a GPS or traditional knowledge?

The old ways of navigating backcountry routes are worth respecting, but some snowmobilers are more inclined to put their trust in modern technology, writes snowmobiling columnist Jay Legere.
Rob Pilgrim relies on his GPS to navigate snowmobile routes in central Labrador. (Jay Legere/CBC)

There’s a place in Labrador that I like to visit on snowmobile.

It’s called Big River, and it’s about 60 kilometres east of Happy Valley-Goose Bay. There is more than one way to get there, and depending on what time of year it is, some routes are safer than others.

If you were to ask me today to guide you to Big River, I’d say no. I don’t know the routes well enough, even though I’ve travelled there about a half a dozen times.

When I go, I follow a man by the name of Jerry Dyson, who has been going there for decades. He has it all figured out. In fact, I’d trust him with my life if we were in trouble and got lost during a storm.

A device with a global positioning system has become essential for many backcountry snowmobilers. (Jay Legere/CBC)

There are a few reasons why I trust him. He’s a no-nonsense guy who takes the lead when there’s danger. He’s confident in his ability and he has traditional knowledge of the area that’s been passed down in his family.

Another reason I’d trust him: he has a GPS as a back up on his snowmobile.

I don’t recall ever seeing him use it, but he’s wise enough to know that it may save his life one day.

But knowing he has a GPS got me wondering: will that technology eventually kill traditional knowledge of old winter routes?

Don't forget the fundamentals

Rob Pilgrim is an avid snowmobiler who does a lot of GPS work and has programmed many devices.

“I know that the people that I’ve helped with the GPS, I’ve always explained to them that you cannot forget your fundamentals," he told me.

"You’ve got to have a [topographical] map with you if you are heading any significant distance away from town." 

Greg Wheeler, the president of the Grand River Snowmobile Club, agrees.

“If you are out in the country and your batteries die, how are you going to get home?" he said. 

"It’s no good having a GPS to tell you how to get somewhere if you don’t know the lay of the land.”

Sounds like great advice. However, if faced with an emergency, both Pilgrim and Wheeler say they’d choose the person with the GPS to get them home over the person with traditional knowledge.

“I have trusted my life with GPS for the last 10 years, and I’m not going to stop now,” said Pilgrim.

“I put a lot of trust in electronic equipment.” Wheeler said. 

"I deal with it on a day-to -day basis." 

The way to Big River

I have never used a GPS, but that will soon change. I am getting one this winter and I am very excited about the possibilities. The first thing I want to do is map out the route to Big River.

That way if I am ever asked to lead the way, I can rely on my electronic equipment to get us there safely.

But I can tell you now that if I was ever stuck in a blizzard and my GPS said go left, and Jerry Dyson said we are going right, I’d turn off my device and follow him.

I have seen the power of traditional knowledge on the land; it is more than impressive.

I am not sure how much I will retain when it comes to learning all the old winter routes in Labrador, but I do know that I should do my best to be a part of tradition now, before we all become glued to the little screens guiding our way.


Jay Legere is a social media presenter in Yellowknife, N.W.T.